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The Benedict Arnold Option

The Strange New Disrespect James K.A. Smith has for the Benedict Option

James K.A. Smith’s work on cultural liturgies has been important to me, and I cite him and credit him in The Benedict Option. But he does not like the Benedict Option, or the recent books by Anthony Esolen and Archbishop Charles Chaput that take a similarly gloomy view of American culture and Christian prospects therein. He writes in the Washington Post:

The home security industry trades on a combination of fear and idylls. In fact, they depend on swelling the idyllic in order to heighten the fear. The more you have to lose, the more you feel the threat.

A spate of recent books from Christian leaders and intellectuals seem to have stolen this script, swelling the jeremiad shelf. We might describe this as “the new alarmism.”

Well, yeah, I’ll own the alarmist label. There is much to be alarmed about. More:

These are books intended for choirs: they are written to confirm biases, not change minds. They are not written to be overheard. If you’re not part of the alarmist choir, reading these books will sometimes feel like watching video smuggled out of secret meetings in underground bunkers.

Now, this is interesting. Last January, when my literary agent was shopping around the proposal for The Benedict Option, the bidding came down to two publishers: Sentinel, and Jamie Smith’s. For me, it was a close call. I trusted both publishers to do a good job with the book, and I was especially attracted to Smith’s publisher, precisely because the Benedict Option tracks so closely with Smith’s work. I knew that they understood where I was coming from.

One hour before I had to make the decision, I was on the phone with Jamie Smith, who did his dead-level best to convince me to come to his publisher, saying that we could work together on this common project. I had two years worth of e-mails from him praising my Ben Op work. He sat next to me at a 2014 First Things symposium at which I presented a slightly longer version of this paper about the Benedict Option. In subsequent personal conversations and e-mails, he praised the Benedict Option to me, and never indicated that he had a single misgiving about it. So, I was almost persuaded to join his team, in large part because of him

In the end, though, I chose Sentinel, which made the better offer. This was on January 12, 2016.

Only two months later, Smith was denouncing the Benedict Option publicly for being “alarming and despairing.”  If you follow that link, you’ll see my response to him, answering specifically the charges of alarmism.

So, why the Strange New Disrespect for the Benedict Option? Nothing had changed in the proposal that Smith once admired. The only thing that changed is that I did not take James K.A. Smith’s advice and join him at a certain publisher. Funny how that happened. Let that indicate how seriously you should take his critique.

More from the WaPo piece:

But the new alarmism is something different. It is tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privileged threatened rather than witness compromised. When Dreher, for example, laments the “loss of a world,” several people notice that world tends to be white. And what seems to be lost is a certain default power and privilege. When Dreher imagines “vibrant Christianity,” it is on the other side of the globe. He doesn’t see the explosion of African churches in the heart of New York City or the remarkable growth of Latino Protestantism. The fear seems suspiciously tied to white erosion.

That’s asinine progressive trolling, and as someone who requested and received a review copy of The Benedict Option, Smith surely knows it — especially because the book specifically warns that the Trump phenomenon is no solution to the problem we face, but a symptom of it. The book takes a view from 30,000 feet of American Christianity. I cite the research of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, who documents the stark decline of American Christian belief, compared to historical doctrinal norms. I cite the more recent findings, by Pew, by Jean Twenge, and by others, showing the unprecedented falloff of religious identification and practice among Millennials. And I cite the recent study by two eminent sociologists of religion who found that the United States is now on the same secularizing track as Europe (I wrote about that also here, on this blog.)

If you are a believing Christian who is not alarmed by this, you have your head in the sand. On his blog the other day, Alan Jacobs observed that some public critics of the Benedict Option seem to be operating from a position of “motivated reasoning” — that is, that they are reacting less about what’s actually in the book than in how the book’s premises, if true, threaten their own biases and interests. In other words, they may be motivated to react with hostility to it, beyond legitimate criticism. To put it more uncharitably, as the saying goes, it is hard to get a man to see something when his paycheck depends on him not seeing it.

Is that happening here? I don’t know. I can’t read James K.A. Smith’s mind. I do know that I find it awfully strange that he turned so sharply on the Benedict Option, in the time he did. And I find it especially dishonest — and, frankly, morally and intellectually discreditable — that he would impute racist motivations to me when the book I wrote, which he has in hand, makes a very different claim. Frankly, it’s disgusting. Smith writes:

And despite all their protests to the contrary, what sticks with you when you walk away from these books is a bunker mentality. It’s what sells the security system.

Yeah? And what do you have to say to preserve your brand’s viability in an increasingly liberalizing academic world?

Readers of The Benedict Option will find a different book than the one Jamie Smith’s comments here leads them to believe it is. The book I wrote is no different in content and tone from the many, many blog posts I’ve written here over the years about the Benedict Option, and that Jamie Smith affirmed and embraced. I find it impossible to believe that if I had taken James K.A. Smith’s advice on the publisher of The Benedict Option, that he would be seeing all these catty tweets and remarks from him as the book nears its debut.

The same is true regarding the (excellent) books by Archbishop Chaput and Tony Esolen. To call our three books “alarmist” is not much of a criticism, unless you demonstrate why they err in describing current conditions as alarming. This Jamie Smith does not trouble himself to do. And there’s this cheap shot at Chaput, Esolen, and me at the end of his piece:

The new alarmism seems to have bought the nonsense about the “right side of history,” just in the negative. Hunker down for a decline. But I’m reminded of a line from one of John Updike’s early short stories: “The churches of Greenwich Village had this second-century quality. In Manhattan, Christianity is so feeble its future seems before it.” Count me one of the “willfully blind” perhaps, but I would never count out a savior who rose from the dead.

So our concern demonstrates our lack of faith. Got it. What a sleazy thing to say — but sadly, this has become typical of Smith on this topic, given the Ararat-sized chip he’s carried on his shoulder for the past year. Just sit tight, says James K.A. Smith, and everything’s going to turn out fine. No need to build that ark, Noah; God’s going to make the sun shine any moment now. Reader, if you believe that, you’re going to drown. In our own discrete ways, Archbishop Chaput, Professor Esolen, and I are trying to help believers read the signs of the times and to prepare ourselves to be faithful under very trying conditions. The philosophy faculty of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, may be high ground (or maybe not), but that’s not true for most of America. Don’t take my word for it. Read the research. Anecdotes aren’t data. Anyway, when Jamie Smith has taken even a tiny bit of the abuse that Tony Esolen has for standing up for Christian orthodoxy within a liberalizing Christian college, I’ll take him seriously.

To be clear, I welcome honest, good-faith criticism, because I benefit from it (e.g., Russell Arben Fox’s excellent critical review). This is not that. This is a case of a troubled man chewing on his sour grapes with his mouth wide open. Just wanted you readers to know the back story here. I still strongly recommend James K.A. Smith’s books, which on evidence of the dishonest bilge he’s been writing and saying publicly about the Benedict Option, are a thousand times better than James K.A. Smith’s character.

UPDATE: I was puzzled by this tweet:

“Market/money stuff”? I couldn’t figure that out. Then I re-read my entry, and I think this must come from the line about one’s paycheck depending on not seeing something. Let me clear this up: I’m *not* saying that Smith is attacking me for the sake of making money, and I regret leaving that impression with some of you. I was using the saying to characterize the point Alan Jacobs made more carefully about “motivated reasoning” — that is, saying that some Ben Op critics could be reading it so uncharitably because they have reasons, both professional and personal, to put the worst possible spin on it. I can’t know what Smith’s motivations are, but I would not say they have to do with anything so crass as money. It’s more a matter of suspicion that he’s trying to maintain his position (his “brand viability”) within the academy.

What I’m getting at is that Smith’s nasty attack on Chaput, Esolen, and me — all of us prominent Christian social conservatives — makes me wonder if he’s trying to put some public distance between himself and us. A year ago, when he made his first public criticism of the “grumpy alarmist despair” he associates with the Benedict Option — the first time he ever said a single negative word to me about the Ben Op, as opposed to encouragement and agreement — I answered him at length and publicly. I addressed his concerns and put the most charitable possible spin on them. Read the post. In it, you can click through to the audio of his full remarks (which weren’t very long).

A man who can read that response and still write the kind of hatchet job he penned for the Post is not interested in fairness. I could be very wrong about his personal motivations for writing that piece, and it was unwise to speculate on them. Let me simply say that I do not understand why he was so supportive of the Ben Op for a while, then suddenly so antagonistic to it.

But, if Smith wants to separate himself from us alarmist troglodytic Christians, hey, that’s fine by me. Here’s the thing, though: if he publicly affirms Biblical orthodoxy on same-sex marriage and LGBT issues in general, he’s going to have some explaining to do to his own colleagues. Christina Van Dyke, who teaches philosophy at Calvin alongside Smith, helped lead the witch hunt against Richard Swinburne last year, when the 82-year-old philosopher briefly affirmed that homosexuality was not compatible with Christian orthodoxy — this, at a meeting of the Midwest chapter of the Society of Christian Philosophers last year.

I don’t know where Smith stands on LGBT issues, but if he were to publicly affirm Christian orthodoxy, I expect that life would get really … alarming really fast for him at Calvin. But if he were to deny it, that would come as a surprise to more conservative Christians who have long assumed that he was one of them.

One can put as much stylistic distance between oneself and the nasty, fearful, homophobic, white-privilege-defending Christians as one wants, but that’s not going to save you if you hold the “heretical” position on LGBT issues in the academy. As Smith will find out if he actually holds to orthodoxy on the issue, and dares to come out of the closet over it. Winsomeness is a shield made of tissue paper. I don’t even work in academia and I have heard from more than a few Christian academics, even some who teach in Christian colleges and universities, who live in real fear for their careers over this issue. That is alarming.

And by the way, it’s pretty funny to accuse Archbishop Chaput, a Native American (he’s a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi), of mourning the decline in white privilege.

UPDATE.2: Some of you have said it wasn’t fair for me to cite personal e-mails from Smith in which he praised the Benedict Option. OK. Let me just say then that in private, Smith had led me to believe that he was a supporter of my work on the Benedict Option. Does he deny that? I don’t think he can or will, because when I asked him last year after the Florida remarks why he had turned, he said, in writing, that he had changed his mind about it. Ask him. He knows.



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